Infancy is a period when basic emotions are established, and the child progresses in both emotional expression as well as recognition of emotions in others. During early childhood, children typically start to develop self-conscious emotions like shame and guilt as they start evaluating themselves, instead of simply reacting to caregivers’ or other adults’ evaluations.
As children become increasingly self-aware, more effective at communicating, and better at understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, their social skills improve. They become skilled at modifying and expressing their emotions to fit different social situations. For example, one child may feel angry, but he or she knows that having a tantrum at school is inappropriate. Another child learns that acting pleasant and happy, even though she is actually feeling shy, is a better way to meet people in a birthday party when she does not know many of the other children. Changing or controlling one’s emotions in social situations is an important skill that allows children to fit in with groups and helps in creating interpersonal relationships.
Another emotional capacity that develops during early childhood is empathy, which is an important component of positive social behavior. As with other emotions, the development of empathy depends on cognitive and language development.
Learning how to appropriately express and deal with anger, aggression, and fear is a valuable life and social skill. Young children often need plenty of guidance and positive discipline in order to learn how to control their anger. Parents and caregivers not only directly teach ways of controlling emotions, but also indirectly influence children’s behaviour by acting as role models.
As infants grow, they begin to mature in their ability to interact with others socially. A child’s main developmental task is to create bonds and connect with primary caregivers. In contrast, young children branch out and began to create other social relationships. When interacting with other children of their age, such as peers at day care or preschool, they engage in parallel play in which they play beside each other without truly interacting with each other.
Young children begin to play more cooperatively. In cooperative play, they engage in the common activity in a small group. Often, these first forms of cooperative play include pretend or symbolic play. As they continue to develop socially with peers, they often enter a stage of rough and tumble play which includes running, racing, climbing, or competitive games. This is the stage when social skills such as learning to take turns and follow simple group rules and norms are practiced.
During this period children show fast change in social relationships. They use social comparison to distinguish themselves from others. They start seeing things from other’s perspective. A child begins to weigh self-worth and increasingly compares himself or herself with peers.
Children are now able to understand emotions of pride and shame and can experience more than one emotion in a given situation. They can suppress or conceal emotions more effectively and use self-acquired strategies to cope. In this period, children internalize or begin to control their values and feelings from within. They start making judgments at this age that impact moral development.
Gender differences are observed during middle childhood. Girls may attach greater importance to good interpersonal relationships and the family while boys may emphasize the importance of social prestige.
A prevalent problem among children of this age group is of bullying. Researchers have found that bullies display certain characteristics, such as being intrusive, having demanding but unresponsive parents. Victims are often depressed and have lower self-esteem.
In middle childhood, self-concept changes from a focus on observable characteristics and typical behavior and emotions to an emphasis on personality traits, positive and negative characteristics, and social comparisons. The child begins to see his or her own strengths and limitations. This helps the move towards achievement of an identity.